Many pet rabbits are not being fed right. Three out of a hundred pet rabbits were still being fed a muesli rabbit mix, rather than pellets, the correct food. One in ten were not given hay daily and almost two in ten did not have hay available, an essential for health. And this was in a survey of conscientious rabbit owners (Mullan & Main, 2012)! This poor diet leads to severe health problems (Harcourt-Brown 2002)
Eight tenths of a rabbit’s diet should be good sweet ordinary hay, which is neither dusty nor damp, or ordinary grass (not grass cuttings). Rabbits need lots and lots of fibre to keep their gut working properly and to maintain their teeth in order by chewing. Rabbits without hay may start chewing the hutch (Bethelsen & Hansen, 1999). Hay is the best thing to keep a rabbit mentally and physically healthy (Lidfors, 1997). You can get good hay here. A couple of hours grazing on grass in a run will also be helpful.
The rabbit’s digestive system is amazing – diagram here. The food moves quite fast through the body, and some of it is eaten twice. After passing through the stomach and intestine the food reaches the cecum, which contains ten times more gut contents than the stomach. Small dry rabbit droppings are formed in the cecum and excreted. Caeotrophs, soft large droppings that are passed about 8 hours after food are also formed in the caecum. These are eaten by the rabbit straight from its bottom. These are important as a source of protein and vitamins (Steven 1988).
A high protein or high carbohydrate diet, low in fibre, mucks up the digestive system by reducing the caecotrophs, slowing down the whole gut transit, and making the rabbit less likely to eat the caecotrophs when they are passed. These uneaten large caecotrophs then contribute to dirty bedding and to subsequent fly strike. The rabbit may get hairballs because there is not enough fibre to push the hair through the gut (Harcourt-Brown 2002). If the gut goes completely static, and the rabbit stops eating, this is a veterinary emergency (Steinmetz et al., 2011).
A HEALTHY DIET
Feed unlimited good sweet hay from a hay rack or on the floor and feed unlimited grass if possible (never grass clippings). 80% of their diet should be hay: 15% grass or greens. The best hay is coarse Timothy hay sold in long strands rather than chopped short. Alfalfa hay is too rich for adult rabbits. Rabbits prefer to eat their hay on the ground, though a rack is useful for keeping it clean (Prebble et al., 2015)
If you can give your rabbit time to grass on real grass, this will improve his emotional well being.
Do not feed muesli type mixes. Not only will your rabbit pick out the rich bits it likes best and leave the rest (Harcourt-Brown 2002, citing Harcourt Brown 1996), but research has shown that muesli (even with hay) is bad for teeth (University of Edinburgh & Burgess 2013). It only takes five months on the wrong diet for rabbits to be vitamin deficient (Harcourt-Brown 1997). A muesli diet means smaller faecal pellets and more uneaten caecotrophs (Meredith & Prebble 2017).
Feed pellets instead, but in small amounts only so that your rabbit eats a good balanced diet. Only %5 of their diet should be pellets. Check the packet and choose pellets with a high fibre content – 18-24% (Meredith & Crossley 2002). Burgess Excel and Oxbay pelleted foods are a good place to start in the UK.
Never leave a bowl full of pellets throughout the day. Feed just enough for your rabbit to finish up completely. Or, if you are not there to check this, feed two very small portions a day that can be eaten in five to ten minutes while you wait. If the bowl isn’t cleared, then feed less the next time. Too many pellets can lead to obesity. Fat rabbits are very likely to develop sore hocks (Mancellini et al, 2014)
Fresh vegetables can include broccoli, watercress, pea pods, celery and radish tops. Wild food like cow parsley, sow thistle, chickweed, goose grass, vetches, young docks, raspberry leaves, plantain, clover (not too much) and dandelion (not too much) are also good. Don’t just feed one type: feed a selection. Feeding just one one plant may cause problems if fed in large quantities. (Harcourt-Brown 2002). Wash all greens. There is a good book about foraging for rabbits here.
Hay should be always available, but any other feed – fresh vegetables or a small amount of pellets – should be fed in the afternoon or evening rather than the morning so that your rabbits can eat during the night, as wild rabbits would (Krohn et al, 1999). The photo on the right shows how rabbit poo improves after enough fibre.
Do not change your rabbit’s diet suddenly, even if the new food is an improvement (Lowe, 1988). Slowly mix a new food with an old food, changing slowly over several days. Talk to your vet if your rabbit is elderly. You can check here to see if your rabbit is getting too fat.
Do not feed high protein mixes, mixes with fruit in them, all ‘luxury’ mixes, sticky treats with sugar, oil or seeds. Do not feed fruit and in particular do not let your rabbit eat the pips in fruit. While rabbits can eat the baby sweetcorn found in Chinese dishes, the large ordinary sweetcorn (maize) should not be given to them. It can cause a blockage. Remember – a rich diet or rich treats means digestive upsets, sometimes making a rabbit aggressive (McBride & Wickens, l997).
NEVER give sticky treats, dairy treats or any treats with honey. The best treats are wild plants like sow thistle, groundsel, plantain, clover, dandelion, brambles, etc. Or garden veg like broccoli. Do not feed too much root veg. Don’t feed fruit. Don’t feed lettuce. Oxbow hay cakes are really good treats. Excel Nature Snacks are OK too. Do not feed locust beans. These are sometimes still sold as treats but the locust bean can get stuck in the small intestine and kill the rabbit (Harcourt-Brown 2002).
It is important to feed rabbits grass and wild foods but do not feed rhubarb stems or leaves, potato or tomato leaves or stems, beetroot leaves, buttercup flowers or leaves, runner beans or runner bean leaves. Do not let house rabbits eat the house plant Dieffenbacchia, avocado (leaves or fruit), holly, ivy, miseltoe. Do not give conifer branches or leaves. Kale, carrot tops, spinach, cabbage, spring greens, Brussel sprouts should be fed only in small quantities. Aramanthus species, lincluding Love-Lies-Bleeding, are known to be toxic to rabbits (Harcourt-Brown 2002). Many human foods like chocolate or alcohol are poisonous. Even safe human foods are too rich for rabbits. You wouldn’t eat rabbit pellets so why feed them human cake? Never give human drugs to rabbits. These could kill them. For a longer list look at the Rabbit Welfare website.
You can check this by downloading the Rabbit Size-O-Meter here. This gives a score for body weight and if your rabbit is size 5 then visit a good rabbit vet. It’s important not to make sudden changes to the diet as this stresses out rabbits. Make a proper plan with the help of your vet or vet nurse.
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Harcourt-Brown, F., (2002), The Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, Oxford, UK, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Harcourt-Brown, F., (1997) Diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of dental disease in pet rabbits,’ In Practice, 19, 407-427
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Meredith, A. & Crossley, D. A. (2002), ‘Rabbits,’ eds: Meredith, A. & Redrobe, S., BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets, Fourth Edition, Quedgeley, UK, BSAVA, 76-92.
Meredith, A. L. & Prebble, J. L.,(2017), ‘Impact of diet on faecal output and caecotroph consumption in rabbits,’ Journal of Small Animal Practice, 58, 139-145
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Prebble, J.L. Lanford, f. M., Shaw, D. J & Meredith, A. L., (2015), ‘ The effect of four different feeding regimes on rabbit behaviour,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 169, 86-92.
Steinmetz. H. W. & Class, M., (2011), ‘Gastrointestinal stasis in rabbits and rodents, 35th WSAVA Congress.
Steven, C. E. (1988), Comparative Physiology of the Vertebrate Digestive System, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
University of Edinburgh & Burgess (2013), ‘Health. Diet. The Research,’ Available at www.rabbitawarenessweek.co.uk/diet/the-research. Accessed August 28 2013.